Interview Series #19: Alex Hershaft of FARM

What a delight it is to share the story of Alex Hershaft today. Alex is one of the most important pioneers of the animal advocacy and vegan movements, and without him, the U.S. Animal Rights Conference just wouldn't exist. Vegan-friendly holidays like World Vegetarian Day, World Farm Animals Day, and The Great American Meatout are celebrated because Alex took his passion and turned it into something the entire nation could reflect upon and honor. And then there's FARM, Alex's nonprofit organization that works to promote a vegan lifestyle through public education and grassroots activism to end the use of animals for food. My favorite part about Alex's story is that animal activism became his calling long after he had spent years in another profession - proof to us all that we should always remain open to wherever life steers us!  
 
Dr. Alex Hershaft founded the Vegetarian Information Service in 1976 and FARM in 1982. He launched World Vegetarian Day in 1977, World Farm Animals Day in 1983, the Great American Meatout in 1985, Gentle Thanksgiving in 1990, and CHOICE (Citizens for Healthy Options In Children's Education) in 1995. He organized 17 national animal rights conferences including the Action For Life Conference that launched the U.S. Animal Rights movement in 1981. He is a member of the Vegetarian and the Animal Rights Hall of Fame. He describes himself as a "late bloomer", having accomplished all this after earning a Ph.D. in chemistry and devoting nearly 30 years to science research and consulting.
 
Kiss Me, I'm Vegan: What was the turning point in your life that led you to veganism? Was it one huge moment, or a collective group of small moments that changed you? 

Alex: As far back as I can remember, it never made sense to me to hit a beautiful, innocent, sentient animal over the head, cut his body into small pieces, and then shove the pieces into my mouth. I suppose it was initially an aesthetic conviction - not too different from that of the ladies in Queen Victoria's England that led to the early anti-cruelty statutes. In 1962, during my two-year stay in Israel, I stumbled across the ritual sacrifice of a baby goat to celebrate the birth of a Druze baby. The bitter irony of that act was the last straw I needed to change my diet. I remained a closet vegetarian until attending the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress in Orono, ME, when I decided to spend the rest of my life promoting a vegetarian diet.

I didn't become a vegan till 1981, when I helped found the animal rights movement at a conference I arranged in Allentown, PA, and learned the bitter truth behind production of milk and eggs. From today's perspective, the more appropriate question would be "what took you so long." The fact is that, in those days, veganism was a very novel concept. There was a widespread notion that animal products were a necessary component of a healthy diet, and it was rather difficult to get vegan foods consistent with Western tastes. Many animal protection leaders were not vegetarian, served animals at their conventions, and did not even provide a vegan option. 

KMIV: Wow - times surely have changed! That being said, what have been the greatest rewards of your vegan lifestyle? What have been the greatest challenges? 

Greatest rewards: good health, youthful appearance and energy, and the supreme satisfaction of causing minimal harm to the animals and the environment.

Greatest challenges: failing to convince those dear to me, wondering if I am doing enough to convince the general public. Getting vegan food in supermarkets and restaurants was a challenge in the 1980s, but not since then.  

KMIV: Tell me a little bit about FARM. What were your hopes with it when you first started?  

Alex: Shortly after my epiphany at the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress, I formed the Vegetarian Information Service, which disseminated information on the benefits of vegetarianism. I served on the Board of the North American Vegetarian Society and arranged several vegetarian conferences. In the summer of 1980, I called a meeting of vegetarian leaders with folks who kept bringing up 'animal rights' at my conferences and by mail. At that meeting, we decided to hold a joint conference called 'Action for Life' in July 1981. That conference provided the launching pad for the US animal rights movement. Several national organizations were formed there, including FARM, PETA, TransSpecies Unlimited, and Mobilization for Animals. (The last two no longer exist, but were very big in the 80s.) In 1983, I launched World Farm Animals Day and in 1985 the Great American Meatout (the world's largest annual grassroots diet education campaign). 

KMIV: How do you feel the world of veganism and animal rights has grown within our society since the start of FARM? 

Alex: Being the most senior leader in our movement affords me the the 30+-year perspective needed to evaluate social progress. From that perspective, I see huge progress in public awareness of and appreciation of the benefits of a vegan lifestyle and of the superb variety of vegan foods.

A number of mainstream health advocacy organizations have launched their own diet education campigns patterned after the Great American Meatout. The American Dietetic Association was forced to recognize the benefits of a vegan diet. Local supermarkets offer a rich variety of meat and dairy alternatives, and most restaurants, including fast food outlets, offer vegan dishes. Surveys indicate that young people are particularly open to a vegan lifestyle.

On other animal rights fronts, the obscene LD-50 and Draize tests have been relegated to the garbage heap of history. Most medical schools have dropped dog labs from their curricula, and high schools allow students to opt out of dissection. The number of hunters is dropping rapidly, and fur is pretty much out of fashion. The number of animal companions killed in pounds has dropped by 80%. 

KMIV: A lot of my readers are either activists or activists-in-the-making, which is why I love them! What are some ways that potential volunteers can become involved with FARM and all that you do, especially if they don't live near your headquarters? 

Alex: That's easy: just visit www.farmusa.org/involve.htm and proceed from there. 

KMIV: As it says at the top of the blog, Kiss Me, I'm Vegan! is a blog "for the happy vegan in all of us.". What are the most positive aspects of the animal advocacy movement for you, and what do you feel are the biggest reason to smile when doing this work? 

Alex: Every morning, I look forward to spending one more day helping to make this planet a better place for all its inhabitants.  It's an indescribably delicious feeling, and yes, it puts a smile on my face. 

KMIV: I love that and want to stick that on my fridge as a daily reminder of the work I do as an activist. Thank you Alex! Okay - here's a silly one: you're stuck on a deserted island with three vegan food items - what are they?   

Alex:  A big head of Romaine lettuce, a Tofurky Roast, and a quart of Soy Delicious Ice Cream (make it a pint, if this island has no freezer). 

Many thanks to Alex for this interview. To learn more about Alex's work at FARM, visit http://www.farmusa.org/

Comments

Angela said…
Another well done interview, Lindsay! I didn't really know about FARM before reading this inspiring story. Thanks!!
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